United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION
T. Numbers, II United States Magistrate Judge
Rodney Jones instituted this action in December 2017 to
challenge the denial of his application for social security
income. Jones claims that Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Christopher Willis erred in (1) failing
to properly explain why he did not accord substantial weight
to a disability rating from the Department of Veterans
Affairs (“VA”), and (2) determining Jones's
residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Both Jones
and Defendant Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social
Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the
pleadings in their favor. D.E. 12, 14.
reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has
determined that ALJ Willis reached the appropriate decision.
The record supports ALJ Willis's reasons for giving only
partial weight to the VA disability finding. And substantial
evidence supports his RFC determination that Jones could
perform a reduced range of medium work. Therefore, the
undersigned magistrate judge recommends that the court deny
Jones's motion, grant Berryhill's motion, and affirm
the Commissioner's decision.
February 2015, Jones filed an application for disability
benefits alleging a disability that began that same month.
After his claim was denied at the initial level and upon
reconsideration, Jones appeared at a hearing before ALJ
Willis to determine whether he was entitled to benefits. ALJ
Willis determined that Jones was not entitled to benefits
because he was not disabled. Tr. at 24-36.
Willis found that Jones had the following severe impairments:
post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), major
depressive disorder (“MDD”), bipolar disorder,
schizoaffective disorder, hypertension, sleep apnea,
arthralgia/arthritis/degenerative disc disease, and obesity.
Tr. at 26. ALJ Willis found that Jones's impairments,
alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing
Willis determined that Jones had the RFC to perform a reduced
range of medium work with other limitations. Tr. at 29. Jones
must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards such as
dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights.
Id. He is generally able to understand and perform
simple, routine, repetitive tasks. Id. Jones can
maintain concentration, persistence, and pace to stay on-task
for periods of two hours at a time over the span of a typical
eight-hour workday. Id. Jones requires a low-stress
work setting that is further defined to mean no
production-pace or quota-based work. Id. Jones also
requires a goal-oriented job primarily dealing with things
rather than people. Id.
should have no more than occasional changes in the work
setting and no more than occasional interactions with
coworkers and supervisors. Id. And Jones should have
no work with the public as part of his job, such as sales or
negotiations, although incidental or casual contact as it
might arise is not precluded. Id.
Willis concluded that Jones cannot perform his past relevant
work as a construction equipment mechanic, supervisor, or
mechanic. Tr. at 34. But considering his age, education, work
experience, and RFC, ALJ Willis found that there were jobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy that
Jones could perform. Tr. at 35. These jobs include laundry
worker, industrial cleaner, and floor waxer. Id.
Thus, ALJ Willis found that Jones was not disabled. Tr. at
unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Jones
began this action in December 2017. D.E. 5.
Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final
social security claimant appeals a final decision of the
Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to
the determination of whether, based on the entire
administrative record, there is substantial evidence to
support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. §
405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401
(1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “evidence
which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support
a particular conclusion.” Shively v. Heckler,
739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v.
Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). If the
Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it
must be affirmed. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638
(4th Cir. 1996).
Standard for Evaluating Disability
making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a
five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520;
see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir.
2005). The analysis requires the ALJ to consider the
following enumerated factors sequentially. At step one, if
the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is
denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or
combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her
from performing basic work activities. At step three, the
claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing
of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of
Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment,
disability is conclusively presumed. However, if the
claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed
impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to
determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work
despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past
relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five:
establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work
experience, and RFC can perform other substantial gainful
work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first
four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at
the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203
(4th Cir. 1995).
has a history of military service, after which he became a
civilian contractor. Tr. at 30. A September 2013 x-ray of his
lumbar spine showed no acute bony abnormalities. Id.
Jones reported chronic neck, lower back, and knee pain in
January 2016. Tr. at 32. An examination found no swelling,
edema, or balance deficits. Id. Although providers
assessed arthralgias of the right knee with bilateral ankle
and neck pain, Jones remained ambulatory. Id. He
used over-the-counter pain medications as needed.
also has a history of hypertension, generally controlled with
medication, and sleep apnea, for which he uses a CPAP
machine. Id. Jones is obese, with a body mass index
of 34.1. Id.
agency physician Dr. Leslie Arnold concluded that Jones's